By Annette Hinkle
It’s called balsamic vinegar.
But it’s not really vinegar — at least not technically.
“Balsamic vinegar is an evaporative condiment and unlike regular kitchen vinegar, not a fermentative one,” explains Rita Winkler.
In other words, real vinegars — like apple cider, white wine and red wine vinegars — tend to be acidic and are made from fermented fruit juices. Balsamic vinegar, conversely, is made from unfermented grape juice (must) which is condensed by heating and aging.
That’s just one bit of balsamic lore that Winkler shares whenever she encounters a novice — which is often. But that’s OK. Winkler loves educating people and as the proprietor of Vines & Branches, the olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop which opened last spring in Greenport, it’s what she spends a good portion of her day doing.
Winkler recently brought her knowledge to Sag Harbor where she offered a presentation on balsamic vinegar (specifically, 10 interesting facts) as part of the weekly Fair Foods Farmers Market at Christ Episcopal Church.
Sampling balsamics (and olive oils) is a big part of the learning process, and while dipping cubes of bread into different balsamic varieties is certainly an acceptable practice, for Winkler, the best method for experiencing all the nuances and flavor of a good balsamic is to treat it as a fine wine.
“I always personally recommend people to sip, not dip,” explains Winkler, as she pours a small bit of balsamic into a tasting cup while offering some advice. “You want to taste balsamic and olive oil like wine — sip, aerate, mouth, and swallow slowly. You get a whole different taste profile from the tip of your mouth, the sides of your tongue to the back of your throat.”
Winkler has become something of an expert in the realm of balsamic vinegar (and olive oil) in the last couple years, but it’s not something that came to her overnight. In fact, her love of olive oils and balsamics grew as a side interest during the years she spent in the wine industry, selling primarily French and Italian vintages.
“That gave me good enlightenment to the olive and balsamic industry,” explains Winkler. “It’s similar to winemaking. Being on business trips in Europe over the years, there’s something major to be said for sitting down at these generations old vineyards and not only tasting the wine, but the balsamics, and the olive oils.”
“They’re just outstanding.”
While they may be fairly new to people in this country, production of balsamic vinegar can be traced to Italy — specifically the Emilia-Romagna region in the 11th century. But balsamic vinegar in one form or another has been around since long before that.
“From the ancient Roman days, balsamics were a chic gift — like herbs, incense and gold,” says Winkler. “Today even some of the older aged ones go for a fortune.”
And for good reason. Balsamic vinegar can’t be made just anywhere. Like true champagne, which comes from only that one specific region in France, real balsamic is a distinctly Italian tradition and produced primarily in the Modena region.
“It’s like winemaking, it takes a lot of trial and tribulation,” says Winkler. “The Italians got it figured out through generations of making it. I think it has something to do climate and terroir. It’s the same reason we can’t grow olives here — it’s not hot enough — and there’s not enough sun for much of the year.”
Balsamics, it turns out, are made specifically from the Trebbiano grape and production follows a schedule similar to wine production.
“Which is why the process is similar to winemaking,” explains Winkler. “But the method is unique. While Trebbiano grapes make a wonderful white wine, the skins are removed and whatever pulp is attached is then fermented for a period of eight or more years to create this beautiful port like wine.”
But it’s not really wine — it’s balsamic.
The missing ingredient?
“Added yeast turns to alcohol,” adds Winkler. “That doesn’t happen in balsamic which is kept for years in wood for dark balsamic. With white balsamic, in lieu of going into the wood for years, it’s just in there for six months. From there it goes to stainless steel to ferment.”
Winkler notes that eight years is the magic number for balsamic fermentation, and many producers add fruit, herbs — or even chocolate — to the must to add another variable to the flavor. And the longer it ages, the sweeter it gets.
“If you’ve never had a 40 year old balsamic, it’s like syrup — very thick and very sweet,” notes Winkler. “It’s used on desserts.”
In fact, Winkler uses balsamic vinegar in all sorts of surprising ways — including in morning smoothies and for baking. She also uses white balsamics — notably a Sicilian lemon or cranberry pear — in cocktails.
“You can add them to vodka or Prosecco to make a dry sparkling Bellini with half the calories,” says Winkler who is personally partial to a dark chocolate balsamic which she loves over ice cream and adds that a black mission fig balsamic is great with cheese.
“It has a port syrup-like texture and is good over a salad with Long Island goat cheese,” she says. “Because of the nature of the balsamics, if you pour it over a creamy cheese it melts it. Add some candied walnuts and pecans, it’s so good and so healthy. It’s great for a lot of diabetics who need to watch their sugar intake.”
That’s just one of balsamic vinegar’s health effects. On Saturday, she will no doubt share more — and it may be an eye opener for many people.
“Olive oil may be more well known — there’s been a lot of recent press on the Mediterranean diet and how it can reduce heart disease up to 30 percent — but with that being said, I decided to do this seminar on balsamic because the health benefits are also outstanding.”
“What people don’t know about balsamics is they’re equally healthy in similar ways — reducing glycemic levels, they help control diabetes and help accelerate blood flow through your body,” she says. “People with osteoporosis or arthritis are relieved by the benefits. It also helps detox and is an antioxidant.”
Health benefits aside, it’s ultimately the intriguing flavors that will drive most people to explore the new and exciting world of balsamic vinegar on this side of the pond. Winkler, it seems, is a very good ambassador and can’t get enough of sharing what she knows. Luckily, with the burgeoning attention food growers and purveyors are receiving on the East End these days, it looks as if she’s finding attentive and eager audiences wherever she goes.
“The farm to table movement is so big here and there’s so much goodness to share,” says Winkler. “It’s nice to give people a feel of being in Europe …and it melds here naturally.”
The Fair Foods Farmers Market is held Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through May 18 at Christ Episcopal Church (4 East Union Street at Route 114) in Sag Harbor. For more information on Vines and Branches, visit www.vinesandbranches.net.